Questionable Thinking on the Syrian Revolution

1 August, 2022
A pho­to tak­en Aug 2, 2018 shows destroyed build­ings in the south­ern Syr­i­an city of Daraa (pho­to cour­tesy Mohamad Abazeed).


Sav­ages by Abdul­lah Chahin — writ­ten in Ara­bic and pub­lished by a major press in Lebanon last April — is premised on the con­vic­tion that he has cracked open the Syr­i­an quag­mire. In this review, Fouad Mami argues that it is not only non-Syr­i­ans who often mis­un­der­stand Syr­i­ans’ sac­ri­fices, and that a Syr­i­an might wreak as much dam­age as an Ori­en­tal­ist or neo-Orientalist. 



Sav­ages, Prob­ing the Trans­for­ma­tion of Indi­vid­ual and Col­lec­tive Con­scious­ness under Total­i­tar­i­an Regimes: Syr­i­an Soci­ety as an Exam­ple, by Abdul­lah Chahin, 
Nawãr/Riad El-Rayyes Books 2022 
ISBN: 9789953217482


Fouad Mami


Abdul­lah Chahin is a Syr­i­an med­ical doc­tor prac­tic­ing in the Unit­ed States. He has degrees in Islam­ic thought and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence among oth­er sub­jects. His book, Sav­ages, Prob­ing the Trans­for­ma­tion of Indi­vid­ual and Col­lec­tive Con­scious­ness under Total­i­tar­i­an Regimes: Syr­i­an Soci­ety as an Exam­ple, grap­ples with the prac­tice of oth­er­iza­tion of Syr­i­ans by Syr­i­ans: elites of oth­er elites, ordi­nary work­ers of oth­er peo­ple. The habit of reduc­ing oth­ers to noth­ing­ness and or insignif­i­cance can lead one to con­cep­tu­al­ize them as sav­ages. This mis/conceptualizing prac­tice, Chahin claims, has been a cul­tur­al par­a­digm. Polit­i­cal repres­sion is but an expres­sion of this par­a­digm. Indeed, this habit facil­i­tates geno­ci­dal killings, as with the drop­ping of bar­rel bombs on out­door mar­kets by the regime, or atroc­i­ties by ISIS dur­ing the war in Syr­ia, which erupt­ed in 2011 and remains ongoing.

The Ara­bic cov­er of Sav­ages by Abdul­lah Chahin.

Unde­ni­ably, Chahin asks the right set of ques­tions. For instance, how is it pos­si­ble for a Syr­i­an prison war­den, a secu­ri­ty offi­cer, or even a hos­pi­tal doc­tor to tor­ture oth­er human beings dur­ing the day and return after­ward to his fam­i­ly, kiss his chil­dren, and sleep with his wife? With Chahin, there is a banal­i­ty-of-evil type of ques­tion­ing, as famous­ly put by Han­nah Arendt. In order to swal­low such a con­tra­dic­tion, some­thing must beset the core of the Syr­i­an self and ren­der it sick to the mar­row. The nar­ra­tive that demo­nizes oth­ers as sav­ages has been around for mil­len­nia but has tak­en an espe­cial­ly intense turn dur­ing the reign of the two Assads. Still, in Chahin’s view, it is not only wrong, but crim­i­nal­ly mis­lead­ing, to put the blame only on the Assads, the polit­i­cal elites, or their neme­ses from the so-called opposition.

Decades of a gen­er­al­ized prac­tice of oth­er­iza­tion have result­ed in a mas­sive fail­ure: a fail­ure that is both moral and intel­lec­tu­al. Chahin — he nev­er tires of repeat­ing — does not aim to impart moral lessons. Instead, he seeks to clar­i­fy that when vic­tims of repres­sion inter­nal­ize this oth­er­iza­tion, the sav­agery is just as pernicious. 

It fol­lows that in con­se­quence of such oth­er­ing and alien­ation, Syr­i­ans have become inca­pable of build­ing a viable poli­ty. Chahin claims to have expe­ri­enced this gen­er­al­ized soci­etal dis­trust and fail­ure in the relief and human­i­tar­i­an work he was charged with under­tak­ing in free zones, those areas lib­er­at­ed from Assad’s rule in 2013:

“In col­lab­o­ra­tion with sev­er­al experts in fields such as micro-econ­o­my, human lead­er­ship, and durable devel­op­ment, we planned in 2013 a small devel­op­men­tal project called Mihãd. The point of the project was the build­ing of indi­vid­u­als’ set of skills, pre­cise­ly the ones point­ed out by experts as well as on-ground activists in the lib­er­at­ed areas. Even though the aware­ness of the lack of train­ing comes from the very peo­ple that applied for fund­ing, we not­ed that inter­ac­tion was almost inex­is­tent … from over 200 peo­ple who reg­is­tered for the event, only 10 peo­ple attend­ed the first work­shop. The remain­ing work­shops did not wit­ness more than five atten­dees…” (p. 175)

The people’s readi­ness to sac­ri­fice what was dear­est to them explains why ordi­nary actors were and hope­ful­ly still are light years ahead of intel­lec­tu­als report­ing on the revolution.

For Chahin, this lack of par­tic­i­pa­tion is cat­a­stroph­ic. The rever­sal of what he sees as a sol­id oppor­tu­ni­ty to build a viable future for aid appli­cants he inter­viewed and which his orga­ni­za­tion financed con­vinced him that ordi­nary Syr­i­ans are beyond redemp­tion, giv­en their cur­rent ways of per­cep­tion and mak­ing sense of the world.

The book unfolds in four uneven sec­tions. The first has 15 chap­ters. The sec­ond is divid­ed into two chap­ters, the third con­tains six chap­ters, and the fourth also has six. All adhere to a blog­ging style of writ­ing more than to that of a book address­ing a sin­gle and well-delin­eat­ed prob­lé­ma­tique. The first sec­tion attempts to account for Mus­lims’ fall from grace; it traces Mus­lims’ his­tor­i­cal (or imag­ined) lead­er­ship of the world from the Mid­dle Ages to the humil­i­a­tion they expe­ri­enced dur­ing the colo­nial and post­colo­nial peri­ods. Inter­est­ing­ly, Chahin views the post­colo­nial as an exten­sion of the colo­nial peri­od. His sub­ject near the end of the first sec­tion is the whole col­o­nized world: Africans, Asians, and oth­ers. Polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence, which Syr­ia gained in 1946, has only brought to pow­er imi­ta­tors who mim­ic colo­nial rulers. The lat­ter had ush­ered in an excep­tion­al style of gov­er­nance: ruler­ship with­out respon­si­bil­i­ty. Yet why oth­er post­colo­nial poli­ties did not degen­er­ate in the Syr­i­an way, cul­mi­nat­ing in the post-2011 col­lapse, Chahin does not specify.

The sec­ond sec­tion intro­duces vari­a­tions of sav­agery in prac­ti­cal life sit­u­a­tions drawn from Syr­ia. This sec­tion is the strongest part of the book. The third sec­tion explores fur­ther iter­a­tions of the sav­age. In the fourth sec­tion, the author reit­er­ates the same litany of the Syr­i­an mias­ma: what he takes as fur­ther dis­fig­u­ra­tions of the psy­che, such as self­ish­ness and vengefulness.

Chahin insists that in expos­ing the soci­etal ills beset­ting Syr­i­ans, the likes of which, in his opin­ion, guar­an­teed the rever­sal of the rosy promis­es of their rev­o­lu­tion, his aim has nev­er been self-fla­gel­la­tion as an Arab or  Mus­lim. Accord­ing to him, there are enough pseu­do-thinkers around who engage in such a prac­tice. His inten­tion — he keeps not­ing — is to pro­vide crit­i­cism that uncov­ers the sub­ter­ranean caus­es for the fal­ter­ing of the rev­o­lu­tion and its mil­i­ta­riza­tion. Who­ev­er thinks that respon­si­bil­i­ty lies only with Assad, his clique, or even the cor­rupt polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment as a whole is fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong. Accord­ing to Chahin, Assad and Assadism only for­mal­ize an exist­ing Syr­i­an cul­ture that leads to repres­sion and the sav­age denial of the human­i­ty of the oth­er. Only in teas­ing out the minute com­po­nents of this mon­strous cul­ture, ele­ments of which include male chau­vin­ism, com­plex igno­rance, nos­tal­gia for nos­tal­gia, and an endem­ic inca­pac­i­ty for trust and team­work, will one be in a posi­tion to unseat the Leviathan and build com­mon human­i­ty from scratch.

Syr­i­an Amer­i­can author Abdul­lah Chahin.

There is no doubt that Chahin’s inten­tions are pure. Nev­er­the­less, in mis­ery he sees only mis­ery. And despite his claims that he is exam­in­ing the deep caus­es of the Syr­i­an moral col­lapse, he remains unable to scratch the sur­face of what he pur­ports to exam­ine. Chahin does not draw viable dis­tinc­tions between the vis­i­ble and the invis­i­ble — the sub­ter­ranean deter­mi­nant or what Hegel calls the Geist. This cre­ates much con­fu­sion when it comes to try­ing to under­stand the com­plex­i­ties in Syr­ia. Mate­r­i­al real­i­ty and liv­ing con­di­tions dic­tate the life choic­es and think­ing of indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties, not the oth­er way around.

It is not like noth­ing is inter­est­ing in the book, but Chahin’s approach ruins the few insights he has. The way these insights are inter­spersed through­out rumi­na­tions and lita­nies in the first and third sec­tions reduces them to a hotch­potch of half-digest­ed and bor­rowed ideas from junk sci­ence, folk wis­dom, moti­va­tion­al psy­chol­o­gy, and self-help lit­er­a­ture. Chahin’s trust in intel­lect as a seat of real­i­ty togeth­er with the pri­ma­cy of the mind turns him into a depres­sive reformist, unable to seize the rad­i­cal logos in the Syr­i­an upris­ing of 2011. How else to account for his over­look­ing the revolution’s sub­lime ear­ly days, the excep­tion­al work of the tan­siqiyy­at/local coun­cils, and the fact that rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies would have tipped the bal­ance of mate­r­i­al forces in their favor had the Rus­sians not inter­vened in the autumn of 2015?

Even with the sit­u­a­tion in Syr­ia hav­ing degen­er­at­ed into mass slaugh­ter, the rev­o­lu­tion still holds out hope. The people’s readi­ness to sac­ri­fice what was dear­est to them explains why ordi­nary actors are light years ahead of intel­lec­tu­als report­ing on the rev­o­lu­tion. The kind of think­ing espoused by Chahin and the so-called intel­lec­tu­als like him turns them into coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies by default because they seem to say that not only was the rev­o­lu­tion des­tined to fail, but that its fail­ure was the result of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies’ in-built defi­cien­cies. While read­ing Chahin’s rumi­na­tions over the degen­er­a­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion, I could not shake Hegel’s remarks in the pref­ace of Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of Spir­it (1808) or the notes on evil con­scious­ness lat­er in the book. Hegel points out that ego, when embraced as a mode of analy­sis, is destruc­tive. Chas­ing the lime­light, arm­chair intel­lec­tu­als over­look the real move­ment of his­to­ry. As such, they only uncov­er the depres­sive and neu­rot­ic parts of them­selves. True under­stand­ing begins with humil­i­ty before those peo­ple who are bet­ter placed to offer insight, if not razor-sharp analy­sis. Real­i­ty is not what a far-off intel­lec­tu­al sim­ply imag­ines it to be.

In dog­mat­i­cal­ly preach­ing that the core of the Syr­i­an self is ill — even rot­ten, hence the unbound­ed cat­a­stro­phe — cul­tur­al­ist approach­es of the kind cham­pi­oned by Chahin freely serve the Butch­er of Dam­as­cus. Over­look­ing the Syr­i­ans’ logos, as instan­ti­at­ed through move­ments such as Al-Shaab Al-Souri Aref Tariquh (The Syr­i­an Peo­ple Know Their Way), frames the upris­ing as a cul­tur­al quest for some mys­te­ri­ous­ly lost iden­ti­ty. Yet the upris­ing remains an expres­sion of a his­tor­i­cal propul­sion for total and uncom­pro­mis­ing eman­ci­pa­tion on the part of a long-oppressed people.


Bashar AssadcounterrevolutionDamascusdictatorshipHegelISISrevolutionRussiaSyriaSyrian revolutionSyrian war

Fouad Mami is an Algerian scholar, essayist, book critic, and devotee of the writings of Hegel and Marx. His opinion pieces have been featured in The Markaz Review, Counterpunch, International Policy Digest, Mangoprism, The Typist, Jadaliyya, The Left Berlin, London School of Economics Review of Books, Cleveland Review of Books, Anti-Capitalistic Resistance, Michigan Quarterly Review, Oxonian Review, and Al Sharq Strategic Research. Likewise, his academic work has appeared in the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books; Research in African Literatures; Theology and Literature, Postcolonial Studies, Cultural Studies; Clio: A Journal of Literature; History, and the Philosophy of History; Amerikastudien/American Studies; The Journal of North African Studies; Critical Sociology; Forum For Modern Language Studies; the European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology; Mediterranean Politics, Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism; and the Journal of Advanced Military Studies.


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